Women’s Law Association Conference Rewrites the Rules


From left to right
From left to right

On Friday, February 16th, the Women’s Law Association hosted its first-ever conference, bringing to campus a very impressive slate of speakers – all female graduates of Harvard Law School – for a series of panel discussions on issues of concern to women in the legal profession. The theme of the WLA’s inaugural conference was, “Rewriting the Rules: The Paradox of Success as an HLS Woman.” This theme sought to capture the unique position in which Harvard Law women often find themselves: while they are blessed with great opportunities, they may remain subject to gender stereotypes, feel pressure to act as examples for all women, and struggle to balance their professional and personal lives.

Christina Henk (3L), the President of the Women’s Law Association was the driving force behind the WLA’s first-ever conference. She explained why she wanted the WLA to host this kind of event: “By this time last year, all of my classmates and I had jobs for the summer at various firms and in government, and it inevitably came up many times about what it meant to be a woman in the legal field. Was there still a glass ceiling? What if we wanted a family? How could we use our Harvard Law degree to make changes in the world?”

By bringing back successful female graduates of Harvard Law School in a student-focused conference, Henk hoped that a WLA Conference would help current HLS women to answer these questions while benefiting from the advice of successful female graduates.

Co-Directed by Andrea Glen (3L) and Naeun Rim (2L), and sponsored by Kirkland & Ellis LLP, the conference consisted of four panel discussions, a keynote address by the former U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno, and a banquet for students and panellists at the Harvard Faculty Club.

For many attendees, the first panel discussion of the day, “Rewriting the Rules,” was the most thought provoking. Deborah Batts (HLS ’72), began by summarizing some statistics showing how far women have come in the legal profession and reminding the audience of how much is left to be achieved before women gain professional equality with men in the legal world.

Judith Richards Hope (HLS ’64), also commented on the progress women have made, recalling that during her time at HLS, there were only two women’s bathroom stalls on the entire campus! Hope then questioned whether there continues to be a need for women’s organizations now that most formal barriers to women’s access to the legal profession have been removed. She suggested that sometime in the near future organizations such as women’s bar associations and the WLA may themselves be considered discriminatory. In what some may see as a testament to the impact of the women who went before her, Rachel Brand (HLS ’98) stated that she had never experienced any gender discrimination or stereotypes.

Margaret Montoya (HLS ’78), the first Latina woman admitted to HLS, disagreed that gender discrimination is a relic of the past, and emphasized in her speech that women should not simply seek to walk through the doors that had been opened by those who came before them, but to make sure those doors stayed open for those women that followed. At the end of this panel discussion, students were left to ponder the extent to which barriers still remain to women’s success in the legal profession and whether there remains an important role for women’s organizations to play.

The second panel discussion focused on networking, and featured Rozlyn Anderson (HLS ’80) Senior Vice President of Merrill Lynch Trust Company and Director of Advanced Wealth Strategies; Julie Getzels (HLS ’85), the General Counsel of the Art Institute of Chicago; Debora De Hoyo (HLS ’78), Managing Partner of Mayer Brown LLP, and Shirley Sagawa (HLS ’87), a former Policy Adviser to Hillary Clinton who now runs her own business consulting for non-profit organizations.

During this panel, these women emphasized that for them, networking is as much about using their positions and knowledge to create opportunities for other people as it is about seeking out opportunities for themselves. In addition, the speakers noted that for women, networks can play a vital role support and community function, especially as women undertake the challenges of balancing work and family responsibilities.

The afternoon programming resumed with a panel entitled, “Giving Back: With Success Comes Responsibility.” This panel sought to highlight the unique opportunity that HLS graduates have to contribute to their communities, but also the pressures that may accompany such opportunities. It featured Karen Green (HLS ’81), a former prosecutor and now Chair of WilmerHale’s Litigation Department in Boston, Sharon Jones (HLS ’82), Co-Founder of the consulting firm Jones Diversity Group; Juliette Kayyem (HLS ’95), the Massachusetts Undersecretary of Homeland Defense, Julieanna Richardson (HLS ’80), Founder and Director of The HistoryMakers.

The final panel discussion, “The Faces of Success: Defining What it Means to be Successful,” featured Jodi Grant (HLS ’93), Executive Director of the Afterschool Alliance, Cathy O’Neil (HLS ’90), a partner at King & Spalding, Andy Zopp (HLS ’81), now VP of Human Resources at Exelon Corp, and Jacqueline Berrien (HLS ’86), now Associate Director-Counsel at the NAACP-LDF. All four speakers agreed that success means something different to every person, and that one’s definition of success will change throughout one’s career. Jacqueline Berrien implored students agonizing about B’s to just “let it go” and explained that you can be an excellent lawyer even without stellar law school grades. One of the most resonant messages to emerge from this panel came from Jodi Grant, who explained that issues of work-life balance are not a woman’s problem, but a problem with the profession generally and that men and women should cooperate to solve them.

The highlight of the day was a keynote speech by Janet Reno, the former U.S. Attorney General. Whereas the earlier panel discussions had attracted between 60 and 100 attendees each, during Reno’s address the Ames Courtroom was packed, with many more male students in attendance.

Attorney General Reno discussed her journey to become the first female Attorney General of the U.S before relating some of the pressing issues that the legal profession will have to tackle in the upcoming generations. Among these issues were ensuring that the middle class do not get priced out of competent legal advice, and confronting issues posed by an aging population. Reno urged the students of Harvard Law to tackle these challenges and improve the justice system in the United States. Julia Kiechel, a 1L who attended Attorney General Reno’s speech, stated that she was in awe of Janet Reno after hearing her speak. Other students noted how down-to-earth Reno was, and were impressed that she attended all four panel discussions before delivering her speech.

Those students who participated in the Conference found it to be both interesting and inspiring. Most of the women who spoke had held many different positions in their careers, and in many cases their work has spanned the private, government and non-profit sectors. Jillian Thornton, a 2L who attended the entire Conference, explained that, “It was eye-opening to me to see what other women from HLS have done with their careers and their lives and it really got me thinking about the possibilities I have in front of me.” This sentiment was echoed by Shelley de Alth, also a 2L: “I was especially impressed to see women doing so many different things with their law degrees, from Hillary Clinton’s policy advisor to the Chicago Art Institute’s Counsel.”

This was welcome news to Co-Director, Andrea Glen (3L), who explained that, “One of the goals of the conference was to highlight the diverse career paths that women have taken after l
eaving HLS to remind students that they can, in fact, do whatever they want with their law degrees. Often, as a few of the panellists alluded to during the Conference, students graduate from HLS feeling that they have fewer opportunities than when they first arrived on campus. We wanted to help change that.”

Naeun Rim, Co-Director of the Conference, said, “If you’re like me, you’re at a point in your law school career where you need to feel inspired or you’ll throw in the towel. That is the purpose behind this alumnae conference, really-to find successful women alumnae who have all kinds of views and personal experiences. That way, when some girl in the audience sees someone like her sitting up there on a panel saying, ‘I failed Contracts, but I still got named in this magazine as Woman of the Year,’ maybe she won’t feel so directionless and unmotivated.”

Following the day’s programming, approximately one hundred students and panellists attended a cocktail reception and banquet at the Harvard Faculty Club. If the volume levels and laughter in the room were any indication, the banquet was thoroughly enjoyed by all. At the banquet, WLA President, Christina Henk, presented the WLA’s Women’s Leadership Award to Kirkland & Ellis LLP for their generous sponsorship of the conference. To end the day, Dean Kagan delivered a toast to the Women’s Law Association and to all the alumnae who came back to campus to share their experiences with current students.

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